The Westminster Assembly and Psalm Singing

 

 “…singing of psalms with grace in the heart… are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God…”

Westminster Confession, 21.5

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For exhaustive historical proof that the Westminster Confession of Faith is an Exclusive Psalmody document, see Rev. Winzer’s article below.  

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Subsection

The Westminster Directory of Public Worship on Psalm Singing

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Order of Contents

The Original Intent of the Westminster Assembly
.       Quote
.       The Best Article to Date
.       More Articles
A Book on Psalm Singing and 2 Psalters by Divines
Quotes by Divines
Westminster in Relation to the Church of Scotland
Quotes from Contemporaries of the Assembly
The Psalm Singing of the Puritans
Modern Recognitions of Westminster’s Exclusive Psalmody

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The Original Intent of the Westminster Assembly

Quote

George Bancroft

The Apostolic Church and the Gospel Ministry, pp. 223-224

Some promoters of singing hymns may differ with the [OPC] majority and minority reports, alleging that perhaps the phrase “singing of psalms” in the Westminster Confession of Faith may not mean that only psalms are to be employed in public worship.  Some Presbyterians have argued that the term ‘psalms,’ being a lower case ‘p’ might refer to psalms and hymns.  In the original 1648 edition of the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God, the upper case ‘P’ in the term ‘Psalms’ was consistently used;¹ but regardless of which edition is used with consistent upper or lower case, it will make no difference to the true intent of the writers and signers of the Westminster Standards.  The following Westminster documents consistently speak of singing psalms, with no mention of hymns: Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. XXI, sec. V), Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church Government (Of the Ordinances in a particular Congregation), and the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God (Of the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day, Of Singing of Psalms). Acknowledging historic Presbyterian familiarity with the Synod of Dordrecht Church Order (1618-19) and the distinction made between psalms and hymns, in all fairness to legislative intent interpretation, the ‘psalms’ or ‘Psalms’ in the Westminster Standards must be biblical psalms of praise.

¹ The Westminster Standards, An Original Facsimile (Audubon, New Jersey: Old Paths Publications, 1997)

In the later editions of the Westminster Standards, biblical psalms of praise, were commonly referred to as ‘psalms.’  In the reading of the Scriptures, in The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God, it references exposition of the portion of Scripture read: “let it not be done until the whole chapter of psalm be ended” (Of Public Reading of the Holy Scriptures).  Regarding public preaching, it speaks of some ‘text of scripture’; it further orders the use of “some chapter, a psalm, or book of the holy scripture” (Of the Preaching of the Word).  In the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, there are parallel and coordinate directives to read or sing a ‘psalm,’ but no directive to sing a hymn.  We find this same employment of the term ‘psalm’ or ‘psalms’ in the Authorised King James Version to refer to the Book of Psalms (see Luke 24:44).

The London or Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) deliberately altered section V, of the chapter, Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day, to read “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The Baptists understood the legislative intent meaning of the Westminster Confession of Faith to be psalms only, as Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are used as proof-texts for the “singing of psalms with grace in the heart” (West. Con. ch. XXI, sec. V). The Baptists, therefore, decidedly rejected the historic Westminster Presbyterian interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The 17th century Westminster Presbyterians interpreted, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) to the Book of Psalms.

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The Best Article on the Subject to Date

Winzer, Matthew – Westminster and Worship Examined: a Review of Nick Needham’s Essay on the Westminster Confession of Faith’s Teaching Concerning the Regulative Principle, the Singing of Psalms, and the Use of Musical Instruments in the Public Worship of God  from the Confessional Presbyterian #4 (2008)  Buy  13 pages, pp. 253-266

Winzer here overwhelmingly historically proves that the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) teaches exclusive psalmody.  Until someone refutes Winzer it is not historically credible to say that the Confession (1646) allows for uninspired hymn singing. 

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More Articles

Bushell, Michael – The Songs of Zion  Buy  (1977, 3rd ed. 1999) pp. 190-191

Schwertley, Brian –  The Westminster Confession and Psalmody  2002, 5 pp. being the Appendix to his Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense,  Buy  73 pp.

Clark, R. Scott – What did the Divines Mean by ‘Psalms’?  2014  12 paragraphs

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A Book on Psalm Singing and Two Psalters by Westminster Divines

The Westminster Divines’ Psalters and Works on Psalm Singing

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Quotes by Westminster Divines

Most of the quotes below were collected from Matthew Winzer’s article, Westminster and Worship Examined: a Review of Nick Needham’s Essay…

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The Westminster Assembly

Sept. 12, 1645, Session 502, Friday morning, as given in Mitchell, Minutes, p. 131

This Assembly doth humbly advise and desire that those Psalms set forth by Mr. Rouse, with such alterations as are made by the Committee of the Assembly appointed to review it, may be publicly sung in churches, as being useful and profitable to the Church.

Nov. 13th, 1645, Being a resolution by the Assembly sent to the English House of Commons, as given in Mitchell, Minutes of the Sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Still Waters Revival Books, 1991 rpt.) 163.

Ordered—That whereas the Hon[orable] House of Commons hath, by an order bearing the date the 20th of November 1643, recommended the Psalms set out by Mr. Rouse to the consideration of the Assembly of Divines, the Assembly hath caused them to be carefully perused, and as they are now altered and amended, do approve of them, and humbly conceive that it may be useful and profitable to the Church that they be permitted to be publicly sung.

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The English Civil House of Commons

April 15, 1646, as given in the Journals of the House of Commons (1803), vol. 4, p. 509

“Ordered, That the Book of Psalms, set forth by Mr. Rous, and perused by the Assembly of Divines, be forthwith printed in sundry volumes: And that the said Psalms, and none other, shall, after the first day of January next, be sung in all Churches and Chapels within the Kingdom of England, Dominion of Wales, and Town of Berwick upon-Tweede; and that it be referred to Mr. Rous, to take care for the true printing thereof.—The Lords concurrence [willing] to be desired herein.”

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Thomas Ford  1653

Singing of Psalms: the Duty of Christians under the New Testament, or a Vindication of that Gospel Ordinance in Five sermons upon Eph. 5:19, 1653, London, p. 14

I know nothing more probable than this, viz. That Psalms, and Hymns, and spiritual Songs [in Eph. 5:19], do answer to Mizmorim, Tehillim, and Shirim, which are the Hebrew names of David’s Psalms.  All the Psalms together are called Tehillim, i.e. Praises, or songs of praise.  Mizmor and Shir are in the Titles of many Psalms, sometimes one, and sometimes the other, and sometimes both joyn’d together, as they know well who can read the Original.  Now the Apostle calling them by the same names by which the Greek Translation (which the New Testament so much follows) renders the Hebrew, is an argument that he means no other than David’s Psalms

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Samuel Gibson  1645

The Ruin of the Authors and Fomentors of Civil Wars (London: Printed by M.S., 1645) p. 25

But it hath been often said, Take away the Common Prayer Book, take away our religion.  Nay, our religion is in the Bible; there is our God, and our Christ, and our Faith, and our Creed in all points.  The whole Bible was St. Paul’s belief; there are the Psalms of David, and his prayers, and the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers, by which we may learn to pray; we have still the Lord’s songs, the songs of Sion, sung by many with grace in their hearts, making melody to the Lord, though without organs.

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Robert Baillie  1645  

A Dissuasive from the Errors of the time : wherein the tenets of the principal sects, especially of the Independents, are drawn together in one map, for the most part in the words of their own authors and their main principles are examined by the touch-stone of the Holy Scriptures, 1645, pp. 118-9

[Baille is describing the errors and deviations of the Independents.]

In the Psalms the Independents wander wider then their Teachers; some of them will have no songs in the time of public judgments, others will not permit women to sing in the Church, but the greatest difference is, that the Independents of Arnheim did stop the mouths of all but one, who did sing the hymn which himself had composed, in the midst of the congregation for their edification.

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John Lightfoot  1684 

The Works of the Reverend and Learned John Lightfoot, volume 2 (London, Printed by W. R., 1684) p. 1160

[In reference to the ‘hymn’ sung by Christ and his disciples after the Passover, which Lightfoot understands to be the Great Hallel, Ps. 113-118:]

He that gave the Spirit to David to compose, sings what he composed.  That All-blessed Copy of peace and order, could have indited himself, could have inspired every disciple to have been a David, but submits to order, which God had appointed, sings the Psalms of David, and tenders the peace of the Church, and takes the same course the whole Church did.

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Thomas Young  1672

Quoting the Council of Laodicea, A.D. 363-4

The Lord’s Day (London, Printed by E. Leach, 1672) p. 358

Conc. Laod. Can. 59. it is prohibited, that no private Psalms be uttered in the Church.  Therefore St. Aust in in the aforesaid place doth blame the Donatists, for leaving David’s Psalms, and singing Hymns which were invented by themselves.

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Westminster In Relation to the Church of Scotland

The Parliament of England called the Westminster Assembly together in order to bring the government and worship of England closer to that of the Church of Scotland.

‘An Ordinance of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, for the calling of an Assembly,’ 1643, June 12th

…it has been declared and resolved by the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament… that such a government shall be settled in the Church as may be most agreeable to God’s holy word, and most apt to procure and preserve the peace of the Church at home, and nearer agreement with the Church of Scotland, and other Reformed Churches abroad; and, for the better effecting hereof… it is thought fit and necessary to call an Assembly of learned, godly, and judicious Divines

The public worship of the Church of Scotland at the time included the singing of psalms only as worship, as is seen by The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland, 1641.  

Government and Order of the Church of Scotland, 1641, Edinburgh, p. 15-17, usually attributed to Alexander Henderson, who was a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly

The public worship begins with prayer, and reading some portion of holy Scripture both of the Old and New Testament, which the people hear with attention and reverence, and after reading, the whole Congregation joins in singing some Psalm.  This reading and singing do continue till the preaching begin; At which time the Minister having prefaced a little for quickening and lifting up the hearts of the people, first makes a prayer for remission of sin, sanctification, and all things needful, joining also confession of sins, and thanksgiving, with special relation to the hearers.  After which, in the forenoon is another Psalm, and after the Psalm a prayer for a blessing upon the preaching of the Word…  

After Sermon he praises God, and prays again for a blessing, joining earnest petitions for the Church Universal, and for the coming of the Kingdom of Christ… The prayer ended, a Psalm is sung, and the people dismissed with a blessing.

The Church of Scotland was the only national church to adopt the Westminster Standards at the time in 1646, understanding that it was fully consistent with their already present practice.  The Church of Scotland remained Exclusive Psalm Singing in its constitution and public worship from its reformation in 1560 until the mid-1800’s, as has been exhaustively demonstrated by the preeminent Scottish church historian David Hay Fleming (1849–1931).

Fleming, David – ‘Hymnology of the Scottish Reformation’ part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 in The Original Secession Magazine, vol. 16 (1886) p. 461- 470, 531-542, 597-607, 777-781, reprinted in Shorter Works of David Hay Fleming, Volume 1  Buy  2007, 146 pages

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Quotes from Contemporaries of the Westminster Assembly

These quotes were collected from Matthew Winzer’s article, Westminster and Worship Examined: a Review of Nick Needham’s Essay…

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Thomas Edwards  1645  Edwards was an English Presbyterian

Gangraena, or, A catalogue and discovery of many of the errors, heresies, blasphemies and pernicious practices of the sectaries of this time, vented and acted in England in these four last years… (London, printed for Ralph Smith, 1645) p. 51

The Prelatical faction and that Court party were great innovators, given to change, running from one opinion to another, being Arminians as well as Popish, yea some of them Socinians, and countenancing such, and were every day inventing some new matter in worship, adding this ceremony and the other, putting down some part of worships, and altering them by substituting other; as in putting down singing of Psalms in some Churches, and having hymns; in putting down all conceived prayer, and commanding bidding of prayer, with a multitude of such like: so our Sectaries are great innovators, as changeable as the moon, bringing into their churches new opinions daily, new practices, taking away the old used in all Reformed Churches, and substituting new; taking away of singing of Psalms, and pleading for hymns of their own making….

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Henry Hammond  1646

Hammond was a high-churchman who condemned parts of the Westminster Directory of Public Worship because he understood it to institute the singing of psalms only and exclude the singing of hymns.

A View of the New Directory and a Vindication of the Ancient Liturgy of the Church of England in answer to the reasons pretended in the ordinance and preface, for the abolishing the one, and establishing the other (Oxford, Printed by Henry Hall, 1646), p. 29.

And thus in all ages of the church some hymns have been constantly retained to be said or sung in the churches; I mean not only the daily lections of the Psalms of David (which yet this Directory doth not mention, but only commands a more frequent reading of that Book, then of some other parts of Scripture) nor the singing of some of those Psalms in Metre, (which yet this Directory doth not prescribe neither, save only on days of Thanksgiving, or after the sermon, if with convenience it may be done, making it very indifferent, it seems, whether it be kept at all in the church or no, unless on those special occasions.)

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Archbishop Laud  1636

Laud was a fierce high-churchman and opponent of puritanism.  The following is from a paper drawn up in the University of Cambridge in 1636, which was endorsed by Laud: “Certain disorders in Cambridge to be considered in my visitation,” as quoted by James M‘Cosh, ‘Life of Stephen Charnock,’ in Works of Stephen Charnock, volume 1 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864) ix.  In relation to Emmanuel College, it says

Their chapel is not consecrate.  At surplice prayers they sing nothing but certain rhyming psalms of their own appointment, instead of hymns between the lessons.

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Francis Howgill  1659

Howgill was a Quaker who was against all forms in worship.  He understands the Westminster Directory of Public Worship to have instituted Exclusive Psalmody.

Mystery Babylon the mother of harlots … The Directory for the Public Worship of God through England, Scotland, and Ireland, which now is the chief traffic her last reformed merchants trades with, in all these nations (London, Printed for Thomas Simmons, 1659), pp. 35, 37.

Dir[ectory].  The next comes on the performance of the worship, which is reading, preaching, with singing of Psalms

An[swer].  You that have nothing to quicken your affections, but to turn David’s cryings and tears into a song….

Dir[ectory].  And now I come to the singing Psalms, and their Mass-house, the place of their worship, and so I have done with their traffique. First, they say, that singing of Psalms publicly in a congregation, with a tuneable voice, is a Christians duty.

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See Also the Psalm Singing of the Broader Puritan Era 

The Psalm Singing of the Puritans

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Modern Recognitions of Westminster’s Exclusive Psalmody

John H. Gerstner, Douglas F. Kelly, and Philip Rollison

A Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith: Commentary, pp. 104-105

The singing of Psalms has also now just about died out.  Originally Reformed churches only allowed congregational singing of the Psalms, because they were authentically and authoritatively Biblical and hence lacked the potential contamination of false teaching which might come from the mere human authorship of hymns.  Subsequently, however, hymns (which are not even mentioned by the Confession) have been introduced into Reformed liturgical use and have virtually driven out what is mentioned and was once exclusively sung.

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Wayne R. Spear

Faith of Our Fathers: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 113

The Assembly advocated the exclusive use of the biblical Psalms in praise. With this as the only approved manual for praise, the assembly produced a metrical Psalter containing only the 150 Psalms. The Assembly’s Psalter was later revised in Scotland and became the Scottish Psalter of 1650.

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R. Scott Clark

‘Does the RPW = Homogeneity?’

It may be that Presbyterian churches in the British Isles, prior to the Westminster Assembly (1640s) sang non-canonical hymns but it seems clear that the intent of the divines was to sing canonical psalms in public worship.

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Related Pages

Psalm Singing

The History of Psalm Singing

The Psalm Singing of the Puritans

Psalters Online

The Westminster Confession and Musical Instruments in Worship

Musical Instruments in Worship

Worship